Resolve Relationship Conflict with Powerful Questions from Scrum Trainers

by Scrum Alliance
Image of a couple using agile coaching techniques and questions from Scrum coaches to reduce and resolve relationship conflict.

Welcome. Today in our at-home agility series, Peter Stevens and Maria Matarelli, Scrum Alliance® Certified Scrum Trainers, founders of The Personal Agility Institute, and authors of Personal Agility: Six Questions to Change Your Life, join us to discuss how to apply agile coaching techniques to reduce conflict with a partner.

“When you think about how we interact at work, a lot of what helps agility is being able to communicate and collaborate, right?” Matarelli begins. “How can you be clear on what really matters, and do the people around you, in your life, know what really matters to you? Are you in alignment?”

Matarelli speaks of conflict as a change urge, and often in relationships, this change urge centers around uncomfortable misalignments or miscommunications.

“When you look at Relationship Awareness Theory by Dr. Elias Porter, he talks about conflict being something that it's an indicator, it's something that can create awareness, but it's not necessarily bad,” Matarelli said. “Because if you never have conflicts, you may never grow. If there's never any friction, you might never learn. Some couples, they're closer after having an argument because they get to know each other better, and they're stronger for it. But it's about having, I think, healthy conversations through it.” 

Stevens cites the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last:

“All marriages have conflict,” he summarized. “There are lots of ways to deal with conflict. Some couples, they like to fight, some of them like to talk about their issues, some of them like to not talk about their issues. What they said, though, was what was really successful, or what was really key to whether the couples succeeded as couples or not, was: Were their approaches to conflict compatible?”

For example, a match between a conflict avoider and a conflict seeker would likely be challenged. Whereas matches last longer when they exist between two people who share the same strategy, e.g two people who find it useful to talk extensively through conflict or between two people who avoid conflict entirely. 

“One of the key things, though, was respect, which just happens to be a Scrum value,”  Stevens said. “If we say there are positive interactions — I like to call them warm fuzzies — and there are negative interactions (cold stickies) you have to have six times as many warm fuzzies as cold stickies in the relationship.”

Knowing this, Stevens and Matarelli honed in on a cadence of questions and celebrations that do more than simply aid in personal agility — they increase alignment and trust within the partnerships people have in their everyday lives. For example, each day on their regular walks together, Stevens and his spouse developed a conversational routine as well. 

Each day, they would ask each other:

  1. What did you do yesterday? 
  2. What's the plan for today?
  3. What's getting on your nerves?

This daily, or near-daily, check-in helped them get in front of conflict by staying in alignment and ensuring each partner had the context needed to understand the other’s intentions and motivations, Stevens said. Though these are not the six questions at the core of Stevens’ and Materelli’s Personal Agility System, they are a modification of the questions at the core of a daily Scrum

Related: Read More in the "Scrum at Home & Personal Agility" Collection

An Agile Formula for Daily Check-ins & Weekly Celebrations

Early in his journey with personal agility, Stevens asked his wife to be his celebration partner, the person with whom he shares his priorities and reviews the breadcrumb trail of progress he makes toward his goals each week. With her, he discusses the possibilities he has considered and discusses what is important and what is urgent. 

“The people around me who knew something about Scrum, they said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute — you're letting your Product Owner also be your Scrum Master?” Stevens recalled. “I think that's perhaps the most challenging part, when you're in the couple, when you're coaching each other, to kind of let go of your own expectations on each other, so that you can really listen to what the other person is saying. And I think every time I hear people talk about coaching, it's all about the questions that you ask, but I really think that the deep secret is the listening. Coaching is also about powerful listening, so that you can somehow extract what really needs to be heard.”

“Having my wife be my celebration partner gave us the opportunity to listen to each other at least once a week,” Stevens said. “If we think of it as kind of like institutionalized common sense, we make it repeatable, we make it automatic. We have a conversation about what's happening in our lives at least once a week. We even look at each other’s calendars for the upcoming week to make sure we're synched up on what's going on and to recognize conflicts. We can't necessarily prevent the conflict, but we can at least buy ourselves some time to figure out how to deal with the conflict before it really comes to a head. So that worked out really well for us.”

A celebration partner need not be a spouse or housemate, simply someone with whom a regular check-in helps, they clarified.

“For me, it's a friend, it's a friend that I can share a virtual priorities map with,” Matarelli said. “Those people who care about you are definitely going to check in about those things, even if it's not on a regular cadence.”

Though they might not work in strict sprints, both Stevens and Matarelli agreed the natural rhythm of a weekly celebration aids in continuous progress. 

“If you miss a celebration, it's not the end of the world,” Stevens said. “You know, the questions are still there, the answers are still there. Your celebration partner is still there. Your priorities map is still there, like friends that are here to help you.”

Even if a given partner in your life is not your “celebration partner,” it can be helpful to ask each other:

  • How do we know what we’ve been doing is working? 
  • Have we defined what “working” is?
  • Are you looking out for yourself, and then also adding value to your partner? 
  • What expectations are we working with? 

 

Define Awesome: Questions from Agile Coaches that Transform Your Home Life

The foundation for agility within a partnership is, undoubtedly, in the powerful questions and active listening partners leverage to align and stay on course, Matarelli and Stevens explain. 

“Have we even taken the time to define what success looks like?” Matarelli asks.  “We'll start off strategic planning sessions with that when we bring together our other personal agility ambassadors, and we'll talk about, ‘OK what's our definition of awesome together?’” 

The Big Six Questions to Ask in Any Partnership

  • Why are we here? 
  • What are we trying to accomplish? 
  • What's important to you? 
  • What are you afraid of? 
  • What do you worry about at night? 
  • What frustrates you? 

"These questions work best when you have a genuine desire to understand your partner,” explained Stevens. “So you listen to the whole answer without interrupting. You can build trust and understanding by confirming that you have understood them. For example, just say 'I hear you' or perhaps 'if I've heard you correctly, you said...’ and then just repeat back to them what they said.”

“In that type of environment, that's going to help you be more in alignment,” Matarelli said. “That's going to help you really have those conversations that you might not have.”

“Listen, ‘read back’ and ask for confirmation is a great way to defuse conflict,” Stevens added.

“A lot of people are afraid to actually say what they really feel,” Matarelli said. “And if you don't have authentic communication, if you don't actually speak about what's important to you, how is the other person supposed to know?” 

 

About the Interviewees

Maria Matarelli is an international business consultant, experienced Agile Coach, and Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) who consults and trains companies on reaching true agility. She is co-founder of the Agile Marketing Academy and Founder and President of Formula Ink, the international consulting company.

Peter Stevens is an author, executive coach, Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainer, co-Founder of the World Agility Forum, and creator of the Personal Agility System. He wrote Ten Agile Contracts: Getting Beyond Fixed-Price, Fixed Scope, is an instrument-rated pilot, speaks four languages, and lives in Zurich with his family and two cats.

 

Together, Peter and Maria founded the Personal Agility Institute and are writing Personal Agility: Six Questions to Change Your Life. Their goal is to help people and organizations become who they want to be and achieve what they want to achieve.

 

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